Oxford University has recently been in the news for having been awarded first place in the Times Higher Education global universities' league table, displacing the five-time winner, the California Institute of Technology. Other than the US, the UK has the highest number of world-class universities of any country, with 32 represented within the top 200.
Part of the reason Oxford did so well this year is because it received a record amount of external funding. Clearly success begets success, and Oxford, along with other top universities in the UK, is a case in point: being a magnet for the brightest and the best students and academics, and a heavyweight contributor to research and innovation.
However, success does not just reside amongst the privileged few. The UK has a thriving and diverse higher education sector, with 160 universities and colleges with degree awarding status (known as 'recognised bodies') and over 700 institutions or 'listed bodies' providing courses which can lead to recognised degrees.
A key export
Not surprisingly, the UK is the second most popular destination for foreign students after the US, with around half a million students coming to our shores every year. In fact, according to Universities UK, 13% of undergraduate students, 38% of postgraduate students and 28% of academic staff are from outside the UK. According to the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on international students, Paul Blomfield, international students bring £8 billion a year to the UK economy. Moreover, 16% of research and development funding received by UK universities in 2014–15 came from overseas sources – the majority (£0.8 billion) from within the EU.
Our global standing in higher education is exceptional and one of our key exports, not just in terms of what it offers in its own right, but also in how it affects the reputation of our country.
It is therefore with some trepidation that the HE sector watches on in this new post-referendum reality where, as a result of Brexit, the UK is facing the possibility of losing European funding for research and European students will find it both more difficult and more expensive to study in the UK. In the past week, Amber Rudd has announced a consultation on overseas student migration which will consider whether student immigration rules should be tailored to the quality of the course and the quality of an educational institution. In theory this is to prevent our most preeminent universities from losing their finest foreign students but it will not comfort those less renowned institutions that make an important contribution to the diverse offering of the HE sector in all regions of the UK.
The impact of Brexit
As yet, the impact on the HE sector is hard to ascertain, although informal rumours are rife of UK academics being discouraged from putting in joint bids for research funding with their European counterparts, for fear that the UK element will lose them the bid. Conversely, there has been a surge in European applicants to UK universities as students try to guarantee themselves (hopefully) at least two years of subsidised fees. And the LSE was caught up in the febrile mood when a row broke out last week about whether non-national academics could continue to advise the Foreign Office on Brexit.
The damage is potentially threefold: the likelihood for reduced EU funding, reduced student intake (and consequential reductions in fees) and an uncertain economy for at least the next few years while the terms of Brexit are negotiated and realised. Any impact on the HE sector's reputation will be harder to quantify and consequentially more difficult to repair.
Although it is probably fair to say that most HE institutions will look upon Brexit with concern, there are some positive stories in the news. Angus Dalgleish, professor of Oncology Research at St George's University, London, recently commented in the Telegraph that he welcomed a move away from the EU's 'bureaucratic approach' to medical research regulation, freeing up researchers to be more creative.
The impact on HE regulation
HE regulation has been in a state of flux for some time, primarily due to the fact that funding for universities and other HE providers has changed in recent years from government sources to student fees. As a result, it is harder for organisations like the Higher Education Funding Council for England to regulate HE providers when it no longer offers the majority of the funding to which conditions over standards apply. The government is currently looking at ways to change its regulation over universities, which has traditionally been relatively light touch.
The implications of Brexit must surely now be woven into these changes for, in a worst case scenario, HE providers may lose a critical source of income from those overseas students (be they EU or not) who can afford to pay for a UK university education but will be hit by the double disincentive of higher fees and a more restrictive immigration policy.
It seems for now that all talk of the transition of universities to a marketised system and a new regulatory framework for, amongst other things, promoting 'teaching excellence', has been overshadowed by the drama of recent months.
An empowered HE sector
As we await what inevitably feels like the next instalment of a serial drama, we encourage HE providers to feedback wherever possible (for example, through Universities UK and government consultations) on their experience of how Brexit is impacting them already, and on their views of the latest proposals. It is critical that at a time when many see the re-making of Britain's relationship with the EU as akin to starting again with a blank sheet of paper, the higher education sector's voice is clearly heard against the background din of other vested interests.
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